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Did South Korea Fix the Food Waste Problem?

Food waste is a huge problem around the world. But in South Korea, nearly 100 percent of it is recycled.

A woman in a kitchen transfers food from a bowl to a bin lined with yellow plastic.

© ryanking999/stock.adobe.com

About one-third of the food produced around the world—more than one billion tons—is lost or wasted every year. When the food ends up in landfills, it produces methane, a harmful gas that contributes to climate change. But South Korea is no longer part of the problem. Instead of throwing uneaten food in the regular garbage, South Korean residents recycle it.

Food recycling has been required by law in South Korea since 2013. No one is allowed to dump food waste into landfills. Instead, residents can compost their own food or place it in a certain type of bag and put it in a bin for curbside pickup. Every day except Saturday, trucks retrieve the bags and take them to processing plants. The food scraps are removed from the bags and turned into fertilizer, animal feed, and an environmentally friendly energy source called biogas.

© photo_HYANG/stock.adobe.com

In some Korean cities, residents put their waste, including food waste, into specially designed bins.

The recycling program has been massively successful. In 1996, when South Korea’s landfills were bursting with food waste, the nation recycled only 2.6 percent of its uneaten food. Now, it recycles nearly 100 percent. 

Officials say that other nations could take lessons from South Korea. In the United States, for example, only a few states and some cities limit or ban the placing of food scraps in landfills. But many governments lack curbside pickup programs like the one in South Korea. Such programs make it easy to recycle food.

Experts say food recycling programs can’t be the only response to the food waste problem. Recycling can be expensive, and it requires a lot of recycling plants to handle all that waste. The best thing to do, experts say, is to avoid having a lot of food to throw out in the first place.

Did You Know?

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Farmers sometimes throw away misshapen food because people are less likely to buy it. Meanwhile, more than 820 million people around the world go hungry. One way to help stop food waste is to buy food that doesn’t look perfect.

Composting: The Basics

A knife is used to scrap food scraps from a wooden cutting board to a compost pile.

© Ronstik/Dreamstime.com

Want to limit food scraps? Try composting! Composting relies on natural processes to turn organic waste (like certain kinds of food) into a nutrient-rich soil. Here’s a quick rundown on how to start a backyard compost pile.

  1. Collect food scraps such as vegetable remainders, coffee grounds, and crushed eggshells and store them in a closed container or in your refrigerator until you are ready to use them. These are called your greens. Do not add meat, dairy, or pet waste!
  2. Pick a spot in the yard where water drains well (not a place where puddles form). The location should be easy to reach and located near a water source. 
  3. Pile some dry leaves, twigs, shredded paper, or wood chips at your compost location. These are called your browns.
  4. Add a layer of your greens on top of the browns. Then alternate piles of greens and browns, but use two or three times as many browns as greens in each layer. Make sure the greens are well buried so that you don’t attract rodents. Water the pile so that it’s as wet as a wrung-out sponge. Keep the pile fairly wet.
  5. As the materials begin to decompose, they will heat up. This is a sign that the process is working properly. Turn and mix the pile regularly so the materials receive oxygen.
  6. When you can no longer see food scraps and the material looks like rich soil, your compost is ready to harvest. This may take weeks or months.

© Maryna Hlushko/Dreamstime.com

Not only will you have reduced your waste—you’ll have produced a natural fertilizer that you can use on plants.

If you don’t have a backyard, you can do your composting indoors using a container with red earthworms (available for purchase at many garden stores), which will break down the food. This is called vermicomposting. You can find instructions for how to vermicompost online. 

If you plan to try composting, be sure to get permission from the adults in your family!

From Trash to Treasure

A man scrapes carrots and lettuce from a cutting board to a container as seen from inside the container.

© urbazon—E+/Getty Images

Composting starts with food, leaves, water, and oxygen and yields rich fertilizer. How does that happen? 

You can learn more at Britannica School.

WORD OF THE DAY

refuse

PART OF SPEECH:

noun

Definition:

: something (such as paper or food waste) that has been thrown away : trash or garbage

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